Review: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This is another book I picked up given a lot of hype and good reviews after its recent release, and I wanted to get around to discussing it before my take would be extremely lukewarm. I’ve never picked up a Holly Black book before despite a fair bit of hype mostly because she works with Cassandra Clare, who I’m still pretty wary of because of a lot of her bad-faith fandom shenanigans (and the first Shadowhunter trilogy is just really, really messy).

But I mean: writers aren’t who their friends are, and that was really a kind of silly reason to avoid her, so here we are, and let’s get to it!

The Cruel Prince by Holly Black

This cover appeals to the stark simplicity I like in covers, but I’m not sure it exactly captures what’s going on in the book for me. I don’t even really know what the little bug is about. Oh well.

The Cruel Prince

The Cruel Prince is from the perspective of Jude. More or less: she grew up for the first part of her life in the human world, but one day she, her twin sister, and her older sister are taken away to be raised in the land of faeries, who are beautiful and enchanting but mostly very powerful, dangerous, and prone to bloody politics. Jude is defiant, a fighter, and sick of being condescended to by those who see her as a lesser species, especially a certain prince. And in a world where the man who raised her also once took everything away from her, her feelings can be complicated. (This book is a fairly dark and bloody one.)

This book is definitely more of a “what will happen next?” book than a book that spends a lot of time on worldbuilding or character development for people other than Jude. As that type of book—one with a few mysteries Jude is looking to unravel and a series of stepping stones towards power and revenge—it works, mostly. I did read through it wanting to know what would happen next, and the pacing felt like it clipped along pretty well.

But it’s also a book where betrayals and alliances feel kind of meh because I’m not really attached to any relationship between characters over another because the relationships aren’t too strongly established, and finding out a character I thought was decent was terrible or vice versa doesn’t feel like much of a thing for similar reasons, and so on. This book is really pretty thin on establishing people who aren’t Jude and feelings that aren’t Jude’s feelings about them, and Jude’s feelings about them are generally told rather than shown because we don’t spend much time really interacting, either. It’s a fairly fast-paced book of Things Happening, but not so much a book of People Readers Have Reasons to Care About (other than on a basic empathy level, maybe).

Jude makes some compromising decisions throughout in order to find her way to power and revenge, and I think we’re supposed to see the darkness in her as a result, and I do, but it’s hard to feel like that darkness is a progression in her, some kind of development because…we don’t get to know her being…not dark? We don’t get to know her as a person who wouldn’t do those types of things, and we don’t get to know her as a person who wouldn’t want to sacrifice the relationships she sacrifices. (Those relationships are hardly established for her to sacrifice in the first place.) So it feels like it kind of misses the mark on character moments even with its protagonist, the only person we really get to know.

(It also feels like the love interest situations in this book are really obvious in terms of how they’re going to play out, so waiting for the characters to catch up to what I already knew became kind of tiresome at some point. Oh well.)

Buuut Jude’s series of decisions and schemes and machinations are still fun to read about and I still wanted to root for her throughout, so even if I didn’t feel shocked or scandalized in any way by the direction she was going, I still enjoyed her finding some agency in a world where she was constantly, continually underestimated and poorly treated. (Maybe most of the satisfaction of the book comes from that, honestly.)

I could continue in this series or I could maybe not. I feel like there’s some potential in the premise it left off on, so I’m leaning towards yes, but it’s not definite, so for now I’ll land somewhere middling.

Overall: 


Are you into Fae fantasy? Do you have any favourite books about humans in the land of faeries? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

My quest to read all of the fairy tale retellings…kind of continues into 2018, I suppose. I admit that I lost a lot of my motivation for this last year, because I read a lot of these and found a lot of repetition. (Or…sometimes there would be something interesting in a book that just didn’t quite work.) Buuut I still have some of the books I’d collected from that attempt around and, well, at least this one is an Aladdin retelling, so that’s something else?

The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

This cover is decent. The model is lovely and the colour scheme is nice and mysterious, but I feel like the font and its various alignments & the figure drawing our attention to the bottom just don’t exactly work in the composition. I don’t know. It throws me off.

The Forbidden Wish

The Forbidden Wish is an Aladdin retelling from the perspective of the jinni, Zahra, who happens in this retelling to be female. If you can’t tell where it’s going based on that one sentence, then…okay, not all of us have read one million YA novels. But yeah. That’s where it’s going.

In any case, this book is somewhat original on the merits of the premise: what is the mind of a thousands-year-old mythical creature like? What are its dreams and motivations? How does it go about fulfilling them within the constraints of being enslaved by a lamp?

Unfortunately, the answers this book gives are not all that interesting. Zahra spends relatively little time scheming to be free and having her own agenda, and much of the book feeling embittered than jinn are forbidden to love. This book is very heavily a romance, and not that interesting of one? It tells us how charming Aladdin is, but won’t linger in scenes of dialogue between him and the jinni; it prefers to tell us how they’re heating up together rather than show us their tension.

It also tells us that Zahra is drawn to him but conflicted because she must work towards her freedom, but we don’t really…spend much time with her trying to work towards her freedom. And it tells us that jinn are this feared group of different types of monsters, but doesn’t do much worldbuilding on that account, making it difficult to understand how fearsome they are to humans (other than in the case of the king of them, who destroys whole cities on a whim and disdains humans but…can’t always do this? doesn’t always do this because he’s lazy?) and what our lamp-friend’s place is among them.

It does tell a relatively compelling backstory about a friend Zahra once had and how that situation came to ruin, which was honestly more interesting to me than the main narrative and I could’ve stood to learn more about? But other than that and how Zahra came to be a jinni (she has an origin story), it’s as if her entire past is a blank, and we really don’t get to know what makes her tick or particularly special, or why she’s so compelled to be kind to humans or why others never show that kind of kindness.

More or less: this is the kind of book that has a really neat premise on many levels (the setting, the hierarchy of monsters, the different perspective character, the twist on the story we know), but it falls flat because it doesn’t really fill in many of its own blanks, and it gives us a fairly big cast of characters who we don’t get to know much about. I could also call it short, but honestly, it’s not very short. It’s just short in terms of covering the territory it would need to do get me invested in its emotional moments, or short because it prefers to tell me what happened rather than show it.

This is the kind of book I really wanted to like, and saw a lot of potential in, but ultimately read for a few hours and ended up going “Huh, well that’s that” because it turned out kind of just bland? Which is too bad. If you’re really attached to Aladdin as a story and the idea of this spin on the romance of it excites you, you might have fun with it anyway (and it’s not a very long book to invest time in). But if you are a fanfic reader who has read many characters and story patterns rewritten in a billion different ways, my guess is you’d take one skim of this and think, “There’s probably a better version of this somewhere on the Internet.”

Overall: 


Welp, I’ve asked before, but I’ll ask again: what are your favourite fairy tale retellings? Or: what are your favourite fairy tales? (I’m partial to the tinderbox one with all the enormous dogs, although really it’s kind of horrible. I just really like enormous dogs.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: Everless by Sara Holland

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

I saw a bunch of hype around for this recent release, Everless, and although it hadn’t really previously been on my radar, I decided to pick it up since it was on sale. And since it was recent, I figured I’d try to be hip and/or with it by getting to it right away.

So let’s talk about that, shall we?

Everless by Sara Holland

A lot of people dig this cover. (My partner actually stopped to comment that it looked pretty cool.) I find it medium. I feel like it’s kind of busy, especially with the background black appearing somewhat brocaded in real life and with that addition of the cheesy text tagline, but like, subjective taste is also a thing (I tend to like simple covers) and this clearly captures what’s going on in the book, so props for that.

Everless

This book is like that flop movie where everyone pays for stuff with time from their own lives, only instead of being a dystopian future thing, it’s more of a fantasy setting. Our main character, Jules, is very poor and is worried about her father, who has been selling off all his time to pay their rent, so she heads off to work at the palace, Everless, even though that’s where they ran away from years ago.

This book has an interesting and shudder-y premise, which I would credit more if it weren’t an idea that’s been done already, but yeah. The imagery of people going to the time lender to have their blood (and years of their lives) extracted to turn into blood iron and exchange it for rent and food, well. It’s kind of horrific. The author does well to drive home how horrifying the excesses of the rich are and how much the poor have to go through just to live (for a very limited amount of time).

Buuut this book is just not as full of twists as it thinks it is, from my perspective. It heavily foregrounds from the first that the protagonist will turn out to have some relevant chosen one-ness (I mean, the cover also does that, so not a spoiler), and it really takes the whole book to get to what’s up with that, which is kind of tiring. Maybe it’s the kind of mystery I should care about, but like…it’s obvious from the jump that she’s important and what kind of power she may have, and most of why she doesn’t know why that is has to do with people just not communicating with one another for reasons unknown. At least two people who care about Jules just don’t tell her a dang thing and she’s the one with the most at stake, so it feels pretty tiring to wait for the info and for Jules to get to do some stuff.

Some people are into this book because the heroes and villains aren’t who Jules initially expects them to be, but I feel like Jules is pretty dang bad at processing information, to be honest. (She’s observant enough to see the details readers can pick up on to suspect something different, but she never makes anything of them.) As a reader, you will be given all the clues you need to figure out most of the people who are going to be not exactly as expected. (There is one instance that surprised me, but not…a lot?) This is maybe a problem of being genre-savvy, so I will admit to that. But because I was also slogging through this book waiting for Jules to encounter and understand her chosen-one-ness, it also felt like a slog when the book told me, “This guy is actually more good/bad/important than you think!” and then made me wait the entire book for Jules to realize it and for the relevant character to come out with why.

This is also a book where we don’t really get to know most characters beyond Jules, because she has about two scenes speaking to each named character who isn’t her, and the rest of what we know is what Jules tells us/thinks about them, which is obviously unreliable because of aforementioned lack of info-processing. (Also people just kept stuff from Jules or lied to her, so yes.) So we have to lean on how invested we are in Jules and her quest to figure out the secrets of her life, and honestly, Jules is a pretty nondescript character. She cares about her dad. She’s mostly nice and sympathetic to other people and grossed out by the excesses of the rich in a world where many are poor. She sometimes says or does something reckless. She has a crush on a nice, cute guy from her childhood. She has a lot of the most generic qualities of a YA heroine without the more specific qualities of a good one: no particular interests, long-term dreams, particular skills, ways of interacting socially…I don’t really know her, and as a result, it’s hard to get particularly emotional about anything going on? She’s really the reader conduit to Care About Stuff since every other character is so sparse, but I couldn’t get a grasp on who she was enough to get invested.

I mean, tl;dr this book was…basically a mystery book where the mystery was kind of obvious in the broad strokes (who was involved) and then sometimes indecipherable in the details (what’s actually going on), and it was hard to invest in it because I already knew the “endgame” for the main character, more or less, but I also wasn’t too invested in the main character and what would happen around her?

I think normally I would’ve considered this middling YA—a strong potential premise/setting with some issues with the way it created conflict and with character development—but ultimately, giving me so little reason to care about anyone left it in a less-than-that category. This might be for some people who like when books are mysterious and don’t mind when things are still a little hazy by the end and who like more-unique fantasy premises? For people who are more patient than I am and less interested in character, for sure.

Overall:


Have any hyped-up books let you down lately? Are there any books you’ve read where you thought a lot of the “twists” came off as obvious and you got a little tired waiting for them to happen? Am I just incredibly harsh? (Probably.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This week, I managed to pick up another recent pub from a young adult author based in Canada, which has been an ongoing goal of mine. (Not a lot of prominent Canadians in YA for me to read, I’m afraid.) How did it go? Let’s talk about it.

Markswoman by Rati Mehrotra

The cover is reasonably sweet and depicts something important from the book. A good start.

Markswoman

Kyra is a Markswoman, a woman from an order sworn to bring peace to their area by performing executions of those guilty of great sin. She has trained from a young age for this duty, and she is bonded to the telepathic blade she wields to do her work. But her conviction isn’t as deep as it should be, given the shadows of her difficult past. Can she overcome her inner darkness to do what is right?

Y’all, let me start off by saying I am very conflicted about this book. On one hand, it is very imaginative, with a world that seems both futuristic and past-y and fantasy at once. (Think some kind of “if ancient aliens had actually happened but then left and everyone relies on weird ancient technology and mystical hitmen” scenario.) This world is cool, the premise of hanging out among an order of women who train to kill with their intelligent blades and their telepathic powers is sweet, and it’s always fun to occupy a fantasy world that isn’t all kings and castles and very Western Europe. I want to know its history, from the broad strokes down to the very personal interplays between the different orders and their internal politics. Heck, I want to know what these people are farming and about their economics. They live in a world where you can travel through slowly-breaking-down teleport doors. There are guns that are malevolently evil and talk to your mind. How does that affect…everything? It feels like the author has a lot more planned to reveal how all of that works, so it makes it all seem pretty fascinating. I dig that a lot.

But like, the actual book beyond the setting, you guys. The plot of it is in some ways so rapid fire and in some ways so slow-paced and also so full of tropes it’s kind of tiresome. On the quick end: There’s instalove, there are a couple blink-and-you’ll-miss it training montages where the protagonist learns enough to have a huge impact on the narrative, there’s a weird incident of violation that’s brushing too close to sexual assault for comfort that of course quickly blows over (is even treated as forgivable by a protagonist?! WHY) and is just another quick plot point, and so on. The main protagonist is really close with three people and has a couple of rivals, but we get one or two real moments each between her and each of these people, she just…doesn’t really talk to her love interest but then wants to kiss him. I mean, whatever, you’ve lived your whole life only with other women and you’re straight, sure, teen life in my experience (I thought I was straight then, for a minute), but it’s hard to get behind ships when the people have no compelling reason beyond hormones to be so drawn to each other. Basically, it’s very hard to get invested in any of these relationships.

But on the slow side, we get to read a lot about what a sandstorm (even one of no real consequence) is like, about an early conflict Kyra’s there for that seems to have no impact in this book, about who teaches which lessons and what traditions people in the nearby village have even when they’re of no importance, and so on. These sometimes feel like details given to be guns that’ll go off later in the narrative, only they don’t. Maybe they will in later books, and I’m not necessarily against detail, but it feels shifty here in an otherwise quick book that skims over a lot of character stuff to spend time on food descriptions or whatnot. Also a protagonist we get as a perspective seems to kind of withhold information from us even when we’re kind of in his mind, which is just frustrating to read and the information comes off as really predictable and I just don’t get why people slow-roll this kind of thing. (Also this is a book with telepathic blades in it, can we please spend more time showing that bond rather than telling the audience how much it sucks to be parted from a blade, okay thanks)

I don’t know, blog friends. I mean, I’m down for a cool world and the promise of more even within a messy shell (The Bone Witch, anyone?), but anything remotely close to sexual assault as a trope really raises my hackles, instalove can become pretty tiresome (maybe it’s just something I have to accept because YA but…no, there are people who write love stories that aren’t this), pacing that is simultaneously rapid fire but then sometimes certain stuff is unnecessary is a little rough, and I like to get to care about the relationships between characters.

I don’t really know how to rate this. The world is really something, I dig the premise, and if it had just played out in a kind of slow or mediocre way, it’d be a definite continue and three stars? (If it had played out with way more speaking to intelligent blades and female friendship moments, it’d definitely be more.)

But this was…otherwise messy, and I’m not sure if I’d continue (certainly not right away and without hesitation, anyway), and I still feel kind of weird about that violation of a female protagonist as a plot point bump. If it hadn’t been such an intriguing world and magic-ish/sci-fi-ish system, this would be more in the one-and-a-half star realm of The Wrath & The Dawn (with its weird consent issues and super messy romance and stated-not-developed relationships between characters and storytelling powers).

Let’s…leave it somewhere nebulously in the middle for now, yeah?


Have you ever loved the setting or premise of a book and had Real Problems with its execution? (I feel like sometimes when I read a whole trilogy I am drowning in the potential the first book showed while the series grinds on to…not deliver. Or there are weird times like this.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Top Seven Books That Have Rotted on the Shelf Forever

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday (now hosted over at That Artsy Reader Girl) lends itself well to some good, old-fashioned TBR self-shaming, which we all know I like to indulge in from time to time.

(I still haven’t picked up any of the five I meant to get to last year.)

That said, I don’t want to get too repetitive in bringing up the few from past TBRs that have sat on hold since. (I still have six left out of thirteen left to read from the last fails round-up.) So let’s talk about some books I bought months ago that haven’t even made it to a blog list. Because if I don’t even let them see the light of a written TBR, then they’re really rotting in the deep, dank tomb of the unread.

That said, here are the top seven books I’ve left collecting dust on my “new” stuff shelf!

Spindle by E.K. Johnston

Spindle

Why I bought it: I found a lot to admire in Exit, Pursued by a Bear, so I thought I’d try this author again (plus, you know, online sales). I knew nothing about the book at the time.

Why it hasn’t made a TBR: I didn’t look into this book before I ordered it, so I didn’t realize until afterwards that it’s the second book/a companion book to A Thousand Nights, and thinking I should read that first has put me off it even though I know it can kind of stand alone?

The Forbidden Wish by Jessica Khoury

The Forbidden Wish

Why I bought it: I was going through a phase of trying to read all the retellings, and this was one I hadn’t seen elsewhere (Aladdin) with some good reviews.

Why it hasn’t made a TBR: I got kind of worn out on retellings after reading quite the string of them and not really liking most of them, unfortunately. It’s an exhaustion you can sense in my review of The Star-Touched Queen. (I went back for Girls Made of Snow and Glass, but that didn’t work out, either.)

The Dark Days Club by Alison Goodman

The Dark Days Club

Why I bought it: So many people were raving about this book / series a little while ago, and I do love supernatural fantasy, so the idea of demon-hunting ladies appealed to me.

Why it hasn’t made a TBR: …buuut I’m actually not a huge fan of Regency/Victorian settings? I know, I know, a lot of people are, but I’m just not very attracted to the 19th century, and I tried to overcome that to read A Great and Terrible Beauty, and I found that book fell pretty short for me, and I just haven’t gotten to a point where I wanted to try again.

Armada by Ernest Cline

Armada

Why I bought it: I had heard a lot about how I should read Ready Player One, but it was expensive at all of my chosen book shops at the time, and this one’s summary appealed to me more back when I bought it.

Why it hasn’t made a TBR: …welp, then Ready Player One was announced as a film adaptation, and I kept thinking I should get it and read it first, but that has also never happened, so here we are.

Sometimes We Tell the Truth by Kim Zarins

Sometimes We Tell the Truth

Why I bought it: In a YA world rife with retellings, the idea that someone might be retelling, of all things, The Canterbury Tales, seemed just too amusing to pass up on. That, and I saw some decent reviews around.

Why it hasn’t made a TBR: Sometimes I get swept up in the novelty of things: I actually don’t even like Chaucer, so although I still think this is clever, I have no reason to be excited about it. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys

Salt to the Sea

Why I bought it: This book won some awards last year and got a lot of hype from reviewers and kept showing up in my local book chain at some point, so I figured it was the New Big YA and I should give it a read.

Why it hasn’t made a TBR: …okay, so maybe I’m just not that into period books in general. I can definitely enjoy them, but it’s not what I gravitate towards. (I mostly like contemporary or genre fiction.) WW II stuff is a more likely read for me than 19th century, but…yeah. I haven’t gotten there.

My Lady Jane by Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, and Jodi Meadows

My Lady Jane

Why I bought it: So many glowing reviews! Such a funny, fun YA fantasy twist on retelling history!

Why it hasn’t made a TBR: Yep. As you might have guessed, I’m still not that into those periods of history. I mean, I like reading or seeing tight narratives about how huge historical periods affected a certain few people, and this is probably along those lines, but I’m just not…super motivated in general about it?

 

 

 


Do you have any books that you picked up that you’ve been half-meaning to get to (but not really because there are others you’re feeling into)? What stalls you from getting around to something on your shelf? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Monthly Reads: January 2018

Hello everyone, and welcome to this year’s first edition of Monthly Reads!

It’s stuff like this that reminds me how far this blog has come. I used to just round up the books I read weekly instead of doing individual reviews. Now we have individual reviews, the monthly round-ups, the seasonal best & worst, second chance reads, and top ten(ish) lists. We’re almost a real blog, team. ;_;

Uh, in any case. I’m more than on track for amount of books, but not so much length, so I’ll have to work on that this month. (I promised fewer short books this year, but…not there yet.) In any case: let’s get to it!

January 2018

The Weight of Feathers by Anna-Marie McLemore

The Weight of FeathersYet another magical realism book, and another by the author of When the Moon Was Ours, which kicked off this genre/trend in my reading. This one is a bit of a Romeo and Juliet thing about two characters who come from families of travelling performers.

There were some gorgeous descriptive passages in this one (particularly about the costumes and performances), but I’m not sure I got to know the characters enough to invest in them emotionally as much as I could have? The romance in general also felt less compelling than in When the Moon Was Ours. I’ll probably pick up and move on to Wild Beauty (and then the author’s next book coming out this year; she’s putting out a lot of books!).

Thunderhead by Neal Shusterman

ThunderheadThis is a sequel to Scythe, a utopian-future novel I read and quite enjoyed last year, featuring two protagonists who are learning to be Scythes, the reapers of humankind in a world where people can essentially live forever, having solved disease, aging, and hunger (but not overpopulation) through the stewardship of an almost-omniscient AI cloud called the Thunderhead.

This book felt a little bit like a bridge book between a first and third book with a lot of set-up and not a lot of development for the protagonists, but it did have a strong, climactic last act and a lot of development for the Thunderhead…character, if you can call it. It did feel a little bit like I was reading from the author’s formula (now that I’ve read another of his books, Unwind), but I am engaged and interested enough in the world to want to know what happens next.

The Way I Used to Be by Amber Smith

The Way I Used to BeThis book was another on my quest to read a lot of books that deal with the issues of rape and sexual assault, since I wanted to have a sense of what might be good to recommend on the topic. The Way I Used to Be offers a different take; while a lot of protagonists of books on this subject distance themselves physically from others thereafter, its protagonist seeks out casual sex and pushes herself to own the “bad girl” status others project on her.

I think…this book could be valuable for portraying a different way of dealing with sexual assault, but ultimately it doesn’t have much character development or do much to develop its relationships to hit its emotional beats. As in: The character’s relationship with her brother is meant to be weighty and important to her, but occupies, like, a handful of pages. Ouch.

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Dear MartinThis is a contemporary that deals with racial discrimination against black male teens, from the perspective of a prep-school kid who’s just been arrested for trying to drive home his drunk ex-girlfriend and who starts writing letters in a journal to Martin Luther King Jr. to try to negotiate his feelings about how he’s perceived and what he’s up against. (There’s also more police-on-black-teen violence in the book, but that comes later.)

This book brought up some good points, but it was also quite short in general and short in terms of having a big cast of characters and not really filling us in much on who they are. As a way to start to think through currently relevant issues, this is definitely a real book, but as a novel in general, it was…not really meeting the hype. (I’ll keep an eye out for the author’s next to see how I feel about that.)

The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash

The Geek's Guide to Unrequited LoveAs you might expect, this is a fandom-flavoured contemporary romance. Much along the lines of Queens of Geek, it is largely set at a con.

This book worked out better than I thought, since it at first came off as one of those “do big grand romantic gestures and then ‘get’ the girl you ‘deserve'” kinda things, and it turned that around, which was nice. But it was also really too short, and a little awkward in negotiating how it overturned that, because the female love interest didn’t really get to be much of her own person? I wouldn’t mind seeing what’s next up from this author, in any case, but this wasn’t for me, really.

 

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

The Bone WitchThis is a fantasy about a bone witch, as you might guess. She accidentally raises her brother from the dead and finds herself immersed in magic training, politics, and up against dangerous beasts and a lot of prejudice.

I actually liked this book, which puts me against the grain of a lot of reviewers, but I have to throw in the caveat that it’s basically all worldbuilding and set-up and very little action and character-relationship-building and other substance. So. If you’re really good with slower-paced fantasy novels and love worlds that feel very thought through with deeper magic systems, then you might be in for this. (And how good it is might admittedly hinge on its sequel in context.) If not, swerve.


What were your reads this month? Any favourites to recommend? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This book has been on my list to pick up for a while, but the hardcover was proving difficult to get my hands on for a decent price and the reviews of this were so mixed that I waited for the paperback, so here’s my lukewarm take for you.

I don’t always want to commit to something that’s not-so-loved in the blogosphere—after all, I tend to be more critical than most, so why gamble the time, you know?—but the premise of this book (necromancy! zombie brother!) was pretty dang intriguing, and there are some times my taste just wildly varies. So here we are to talk about The Bone Witch.

The Bone Witch by Rin Chupeco

First off: this cover is worth appreciating.

The Bone Witch

The Bone Witch is essentially about, as you might guess, a bone witch. (This might have been part of its appeal to me, since I liked Truthwitch. Give me weirder magic and lay it on me upfront, I guess?)

Tea raises her brother from the dead by accident and finds herself stolen away from her home to train among the asha, the geisha-like witches of this universe, where women are trained to entertain and battle and politic at once. Only unlike those more common witches who control the elements, Tea is a rare Dark asha, the kind tasked with dealing with the horrible beasts who come to plague the land—and, despite this, hated by many for their fearful powers.

I can boil down my feelings on my book pretty quickly, and for once, they’re not about its length! The beauty of this novel is its worldbuilding. The annoying thing about this novel is that it is almost solely worldbuilding.

Okay, to explain further: this book keeps you moving through it by framing the story as a told narrative. A collector of stories has come, bidden by a dream, to a beach littered with bones, where the Bone Witch tells him how it all began, how she came to be here in exile doing unspeakable magic. That does a good job of pushing the narrative forward, because what she is doing and about to do have a sense of foreboding and dire consequence about them, and it does beg the question of how she got to that point. And, come on. It’s just a very cool set-up.

But the thing is, the book never quite catches up to all that. This is basically entirely a set-up novel for the action to come. It establishes the origin stories of Tea’s powers, how she came to train, and so on. It establishes in often elaborate detail the way that asha train, the way they dress, their role in society, and so on. We get some background in the politics and different locales of the world. We get a fair amount of information about how the magic system works (actual magical powers and also why everyone is wearing their heart made of glass on the outside—it’s a thing).

I mean, don’t get me wrong, Tea gets to do some magic in this book, and we get to know a few characters. But these moments of action are brief, and we are mostly told, not shown, how Tea feels about her family and friends. This book falls pretty short on giving us interactions between Tea and the people she has relationships with, which is harsh because they seem like relationships and characters with a lot of potential. All of them seem to have something going on below surface level, even if it’s continually frustrating that we just get told about it and we don’t get to see Tea’s interactions with them and how they feel about each other on page. And Tea is someone I want to root for, even though I’d like to know her a bit better by the end of that many pages from her perspective.

But…despite the slow plot and relatively small amount of time spent on character stuff, I liked the book? I mean, it’s basically 400 pages of set-up, but the world is interesting and feels complex and thought through. I would ideally enjoy seeing these characters interact (for the love of pie please just let these people have some more conversations and moments, the few we get are good but so far between), and as overloaded as this book is on description, the descriptions did feel pretty immersive. (Yes, this book spends ages on asha garments, but I’ve read fantasy before. It is prone to spending ages on whatever the author’s pet thing is to describe.)

(I’m maybe biased in still enjoying this book because there were aspects of this that reminded me of the early half of Kushiel’s Dart, only it never really gets to the part where the other foot drops and all those plot set-ups go off.)

And if all of this seems comparable to Shadow and Bone so far, then yeah, you’re not wrong? I’d say that here, the training aspects feel more thorough, the world and magic systems more complex and immersive, but Tea’s main relationships feel less developed than Alina’s. (Although it was only ever to me Alina’s romances that felt fairly developed, while her friendships and rivalries felt a little shallow. I have my fingers crossed for Tea’s non-romantic relationships, since they feel like they have a lot of potential; I’m pretty meh on her love interests.) That book is also more clearly plot-focused, driving Alina to a “destiny” and, ultimately (from my perspective), a series of predictable events with diminishing returns (and drawn out romantic angst) thereafter, whereas…this book is admittedly messy in terms of why the heck all of this was important and where it’s going, but on the bright side, it feels less predictable?

Basically, that book at a glance is an easier, better-paced read than this one with more action and romance payoff, but this book seems like it could have a higher ceiling in terms of creating a trilogy that steadily improves on what’s basically an unadorned, sometimes dull strong foundation rather than decaying after the strength of its premise. (Keyword seems. I’ve been burned before.)

Aaand all of that said, I’ll rate this how I’ll rate this now—I’m kind of torn on whether it deserves what I’m giving it, but time and the next book will tell if this really worked out. (And if not, hey. At least it had some cool ideas.)

Overall:


So…are there any books most people disliked that you actually enjoy? (I’m not usually the one in this position, hypercritical as I am, but I suspect I will be among not a majority of YA blogs preordering book two of this series.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This year, I told myself I would challenge myself to read less books, but longer ones. The problem I have found so far with that is that sometimes, I get really busy and I only feel like I have time to read and review a short book.

Oops. I’ll have to work harder on that next month. (On the bright side, at least I’m keeping up with my number-of-books goal now?)

The Geek’s Guide to Unrequited Love by Sarvenaz Tash

This is one of those covers that feels like it was created based on the pitch of the book vs. like…the actual content of the book. The details are pretty off? But it is colourful and geeky and it gets at the spirit of it, so there’s that.

The Geek's Guide to Unrequited Love

This is another book along the lines of Queens of Geek, but with only the one protagonist: Graham is headed to New York Comic Con, and he’s determined that now is the time that he can confess his feelings to his best friend, Roxana, only something always keeps getting in the way.

This book has a really typical kind of plot and at first, it does play out really typically. The protagonist pines, he thinks of ridiculous grand gestures to do, and he ends up putting so much pressure on the gesture and the moment that it feels like it would be overwhelming to anyone who doesn’t already “love” him back. And we don’t really get any insight into the mind and character of Roxy, other than the nerdiness that makes Graham love her, so we don’t know how she’ll respond…so it continues on feeling a little eh, because we don’t know if she wants this gesture or if he’s even thought about the way it’ll affect their friendship—and creative partnership (they write a comic together).

But the plot actually diverts in a different way than you’d expect, which was something I appreciated, and the protagonist rolls with it, so I ended up kind of pleasantly surprised by the book rather than feeling an epic eye-roll towards this guy who wouldn’t just use his words. (Some people really need to read some Captain Awkward.)

I still don’t really love its treatment of Roxana, since she has a lot of pressure put on her to be this perfect love interest and we really don’t get to know her outside of that. But it’s something the protagonist kind of acknowledges (that he’s set up a whole narrative in his head, and life isn’t like that), which helps a little? This book is also clearly committed to being a diverse one, which is nice but…doesn’t really do anything in the story, which is kind of too bad. (Also, it’s a book with diverse characters that chooses to focus solely on the white straight male lead, which is fine but not interesting.)

In any case, this is a quick read and I do feel like if it had been more developed, I might have quite liked it? So I’m open to the idea of reading this author again in future. But as is, it introduces quite a big cast of characters (the protagonist, his best friend, their parents and siblings, their other best friends, two people they meet at the con, etc.) and doesn’t really spend much time with any of them. So it’s really just a series of events from the perspective of the protagonist, but at least he turns out to be more likeable than he initially appears? (I kind of can’t stand the rom-com thing where boys/men try to make themselves “deserve” to “get” the girl using a series of grand gestures, but I feel like this book resists that idea in some ways—the gestures fall through and so on.)

This book is an okay quick read if you’re looking for one of those types of geeky contemporary romances; it doesn’t really have the character depth of Queens of Geek, but the conflicts in that book felt so contrived and shoehorned in (and lengthily angsted about by the characters) that I really had trouble enjoying that book as much as others did. I’d still lean towards recommending Geekerella for something pretty dang cute framed around a con, or maybe Eliza and Her Monsters for something with max fandom immersion. (That book made me really interested in the fictional series within it; this one didn’t get that much into it.)

Overall: 


Do you have any favourite fandom romances or other geeky books? Let me know (I’m obviously trying to catch ’em all to choose my starter), and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Review: Dear Martin by Nic Stone

Hello everyone, and welcome back!

This very-buzzed about book was released in the fall of last year, but I accidentally ordered it with a pre-order book and had to wait until now to get into it. So this isn’t much of a hot take or really a blast from the backlist, but given its subject matter, it’s still very relevant.

So let’s get to it!

Dear Martin by Nic Stone

This cover has a simple, clean design that accurately reflects what’s going on in the book. Props to the designer.

Dear Martin

Dear Martin covers some months in the life of Justyce, who is initially arrested for trying to help his on-and-off girlfriend get home on a night she’s drunk, and decides after to start a project where he writes letters to Martin Luther King Jr. to try to grapple with how to deal with racial injustice. He finds himself up against more of it on a day he and his best friend Manny are out for a drive, and they meet up with an off-duty cop.

That much is expressed in the teasers online, although the later situation happens somewhere in the middle of the book, so I was honestly surprised it came up there. (Feels like kind of a spoiler? But it’s a spoiler the book wants you to have ahead, I guess.)

This is the kind of book that’s hard to review because it’s important and expresses useful, currently relevant sentiments, but it isn’t necessarily just…a really good novel. (The Hate U Give made my life easy in this respect by getting there on both counts.)

In any case: the short version of my review for this book is that it was evocative, but really short. Like we’re talking a two-hundred-page-situation short. So what provokes reactions and emotions from the reader is not so much the characters, because you don’t have a lot of time to get to know all of them (and there are a fair amount of them, for a short book: Justyce, his mom, his favourite teacher, his best friend Manny, Manny’s parents, his on-off girlfriend, another love interest, Manny’s other best friend Jared, Jared’s friends, Manny’s cousin, Manny’s cousin’s friends, etc.).

The situations in this book, and how Justyce ruminates on them, are really how you can get sucked into this story. It’s easy to have a gut reaction to Justyce being arrested, to incidents where others express racist views, to conflicts between the characters that leave Justyce feeling isolated, and so on. And that said, it’s a worthwhile story. The injustices Justyce struggles with are real, and his difficulty in coming up with perfect answers to deal with them reflect reality. If this is the way the world is, and he’ll be seen a certain way no matter what he does, then who is Justyce supposed to be? What if there is no justice? How will he live with it?

The book reflects what reads like an almost unavoidable cycle of violence, but it does end hopefully, albeit at a terrible cost. It’s worth reading for the questions that it asks and for the lack of easy answers it gives.

However…yeah, it’s not my favourite reading experience. I enjoyed it and it asks meaningful questions, but it does lack depth. All of the characters are basically defined by their situations because we don’t really get to know them, which feels mildly ironic in a book that grapples with stereotyping. I could still sympathize with them (or hate them) because they were going through a lot that was difficult (or causing the protagonist a lot of grief), but I didn’t connect with them as memorable.

There’s another aspect here that got me to thinking: The instances of racism in this book are very overtly obvious, as if the reader can’t be trusted to be on Justyce and Manny’s side if they were getting upset over anything less. The jerkish white kids in this book aren’t throwing around racist microaggressions—they’re being very straight-up in their awfulness (at one point, a guy dresses up as a member of the KKK as a joke) and they’re acting like anyone reacting to that is being “too sensitive.”

And like…it comes off almost as stretching your suspension of disbelief, even though obviously this stuff happens in real life. But I remember that the strategy of If I Was Your Girl,  for example, was to make the main character so incredibly “palatable” as a trans girl (transitioned via surgery, very feminine, straight, always “passing”) that she would be easy for cis readers to relate to and sympathize with. In some ways, though, that means you’re pitching the book as high school required reading—because the teens who would seek out the novel on their own are already doing it because they’re willing and happy to read about a trans (or in this case, black male) protagonist, and they are ready (or at least mostly willing) to be on that character’s side.

So the people who are the audience of a strategy like that are those being slightly coerced into reading a book, and what you have to hope is to make an argument so strong and clear-cut that even those with entrenched points of view will step outside of their box. That I get and admire to some extent, but then, it leaves less room for nuance, and a lot more room for people who are not as obviously prejudiced to excuse themselves, to not check their privilege.

(Also, the implied audience feels a little strange here, because Justyce’s through-thread of trying to decide what to do and who to be in the face of all this prejudice are very much for the kind of person who faces racism, not the kind of person who needs to read this book and recognize that those injustices exist. Maybe those two strategies are in parallel to try to make this book work for a broader amount of readers, but I think the two strategies don’t exactly mesh.)

Not making awful racist jokes or shooting off slurs or straight-up shooting someone doesn’t mean a person has conquered the internalized racism they’ve been raised with. There’s more to it than that. (I mean, take me with a grain of salt on this whole review as a white person trying to check my own privilege every day.)

But the sentiments in this book—recognizing the cycle of violence, the problems with respectability politics, the prevalence of racial profiling, the very real danger that black male teens face currently—are important, are expressed in an active, easy (and quick) to read way, and can open up a lot of thought and dialogue without being openly teach-y. So the book is a good one to read and I’d recommend it, even if it’s not in my kind of four-star wheelhouse.

Overall:


Are there books that you’d recommend that aren’t necessarily in your favourite style of writing? What makes them valuable and/or important? Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!

Becoming Dangerous (and Why You Should Order It)

Hello everyone, and welcome to a whopper of a bonus post.

As you may know if you’ve been here a while, my other, non-blogger life is (mostly) as an editor. I work freelance right now, so I work on a lot of different kinds of projects. But my favourites, so far, are the work I do with Fiction & Feeling. And the most recent of those projects is a book of creative non-fiction pieces about rituals and resistance. (You can read more about it on the Kickstarter page.)

I wrote my own response to this book to try to articulate what it meant to me to work on, and why you should pre-order it now, seriously, it’s the last day you may be able to buy it. It’s kind of a book review by writing back, so I thought it might belong here. And I figured you might forgive me for the self-promo if it came in a bonus post. So.


These days, I feel I’m made for what it is I do: editing, reading, reviewing voraciously. The only difficulty of it is that sometimes, when I read something that hits me in the chest somewhere I almost don’t remember (or I read something so unfailingly bad that I can’t help but scoff, “I could do so much better”), I want to write. And it’s been a long time since I’ve thought of myself as a writer.

*

I used to have rituals. As a pre-teen in middle school, I had my coven, The Freaks (a name we reclaimed from the jocks who bestowed it upon us). We gave each other our elements to call. Mine was air, which is just inaccurate, but I didn’t understand astrology yet. In those moments, casting the circle with my friends, I felt that thing outside myself that I was sure was a personal connection to magic.

One day, one of my coven and I were called to the office of our Catholic school for reading a book about witchcraft on the premises. I remember banging my head, in real life, against the wall, because a grown man was asking me if I was “impaling cats” and “selling their drugs,” like I’d walked straight out of a Jack Chick tract. It was the first and only time I can remember a school administrator reporting me to my mother. She laughed: I was, after all, a twelve-year-old straight-A band geek they’d just pulled from enrichment class. I had borrowed the book from our neighbour, her aunt.

That incident didn’t quash a life of witchcraft, but that connection to magic I felt casting spells to find quarters on the sidewalk wasn’t about my rituals of prosperity, actually. I can’t remember if I made even a kid amount of money. What I do remember are the movement of a best friend’s hands when she was describing the way she felt trying to summon earth’s spirit. What I do know, now, is that I’m a Scorpio with a Cancer ascendant, and I feel too much and wear my heart on my sleeve more than it seems, and what made these rituals special were the small ways I did and could share them with the little family I loved, and what took them away was getting my heart broken.

That wasn’t entirely about the breaking up of our coven, though of course, middle school friends from small places often drift different ways, and that kind of change is a tough sell to live with, even if they find each other again. It was about the kind of love I attracted after that, and that had everything to do with my own intentions.

Depression is an asshole. We all know that. And yeah, “we accept the love we think we deserve” is something out of a pretentious epistolary novel, but it’s also true. I’ve spent a lot of my life after those moments with my coven loving myself only through the good that someone else saw in me, giving them everything for it; I’ve spent a pitifully small amount of time making sure I had the respect and care I deserved.

I’m not just talking about romantic relationships. I made more witchy friends later on, and it was those break-ups that left me more or less spiritually bankrupt. I came off a bestie split with my fellow astrologer-in-training where I’d gotten torn up and summarily catfished into another, where I failed to reach my empathic rune-reader in an abusive relationship and spent years hating myself over it. After that, I started going out with a vocal atheist.

Now, after months leafing through rituals and thinking about witchcraft, it’s easy to imagine that a part of me has been missing. But I also can’t help but blame myself: I allowed my self-doubt to spiral when I let the pain of these break-ups overshadow my needs and interests, when I let someone threaten to empty the meaning from the rituals I’d created. In this, like many other things, I failed to stand up for myself.

*

My other lost ritual, the one most fundamental to who I used to think I was, is writing. I always wrote like one of those inspiration-strikes stereotypes: rolling over in the middle of the night, scrawling words in the dark, struggling to comprehend myself in the morning but untangling, considering, refining. (Maybe that part, actually, is the editor in me.) For me, the seeds were something I couldn’t really imagine having put in the ground, but I watered, nurtured, shielded them from the elements. Writing began as something that wasn’t a conscious effort. And I know now, and learned then—even before I made it my work for years—that writing is work, that it takes practice and time set aside, that sometimes you just have to churn it out and pray you can make something not-garbage out of it. That’s something I learned to do, too. But my drive for it was situated in that urge, that half-conscious or sudden fleeting moment when the words would begin to compose themselves in my head, when I’d realize I was writing, when I’d frantically rewind in my mind, repeat, restructure, write it down, begin again. My brain was on writing. It was the way I was made.

And I made it my job as an academic in creative writing and English lit. And the thing is, even though it was work and it was hard and I complained like anyone, that feeling still made it such a part of my nervous system that I would never stop. I wanted to keep doing it, and do it in different ways: new genres, new venues, harder, better, faster, stronger. What happened then was that I managed to cross over my piss-poor relationship luck into my professional life: I worked with a faux-feminist fascist shitbag man and then a verbally abusive, condescending elitist petty trash-human in sequence. One of them gave me a rage eye-twitch. The other treated the space between us like a warzone, even in public.

This was my doctoral education. By the end, the notion of writing another page or giving a reading made me want to fist-fight someone or throw up. Despite every effort I’d put into advancing that career, despite every little thing I did and did well and did weeks ahead of time while juggling several jobs, I had to stand up for myself somehow. I quit.

And the idea of writing, thereafter, felt like banging a sleeping limb against the wall to wake it up. And every time I went to a poetry reading and loved a line, or actually thought a metaphor was so atrocious I wanted to cackle, I felt a wrenching pain in my gut like the food poisoning I worked straight through while I was in grad school. It was over: where once writing was a feature of my body, that urge was now a bug.

*

I used to write songs, too. Sometimes, I still do. When I was in high school, I played those songs to my coven. As I got older, I became more and more reticent about who I played to. My songs were more personal than my spells, more obvious than any words I put to paper. I was trying to pull a windbreaker over a bleeding, shredded sleeve-heart. I’m still not sure that has actually ever worked.

My songwriting has slowed, fizzled. When all you are ever live for is the kind of love you can’t describe because the word love has become entirely tired, inutterably inane, when you are constantly inundated with the pointlessness of living and getting up but all you live for is to exist for those people for whom you’d bury a body, then yeah. Rituals, even those you initiate alone, are not improved when never shared.

Once, I wrote a song about an ex that I cried writing, that I cried playing, every time. I cried for years putting my fingers in the form of those chords until the day I didn’t. It was my ritual: a way to mourn a tragic love, the kind of partner and best friend who was the best and the worst for me, who I was the best and the worst for. That song made me realize what songwriting was to me, the way it emptied what might be churning inside without my knowing. It made me realize that I could play anything until the day I’d start laughing.

*

Lately, my rituals are simple: I wrap myself so thoroughly around something I’m obsessed with that I make it my reason for being. This also isn’t foreign to my past self: I grew up in fandoms. But now there are no spells, no words, and little music; I make nothing outside myself. I chew up what it is I need to live. I consume.

Somewhere halfway through revising pieces for Becoming Dangerous, I had that feeling I get, that unspent urge: these words, these rituals were hitting me in the heart, and I wanted to write. (I also wanted, want, to do magic.) I didn’t need to write about my rituals to do that, I know, but thinking that I couldn’t made me doubt myself. These lost things, I think, were rituals, were real. When I regurgitated pain as art, my love for my friends as magic, I created things outside of myself. I took that vulnerability and threw it back into the world times three and told it I was indestructible, that nothing could ever crush me. My heart was a scythe to reap fields of rot, a spade to dig the holes; I would grow again to love as sharp as any sword.

But eventually, I did feel crushed. Done. An endless loop on pause. I feel guilty for not being that girl I was. And I don’t know what my rituals now mean, other than my survival. I don’t know how any of this might make me dangerous.

It’s difficult to feel like you’re a sharp edge against the throat of the world when you live with depression. It’s difficult to excavate the parts of yourself that you lost to relationships that were or turned toxic. For most of the years of my life I can remember, I’ve woken up on many days feeling like the act of doing so was pointless, that I am completely powerless. I have better coping mechanisms for that now that I’m thirty than I did when I was twelve; I have better relationships than I had two, five, ten years ago, but I still struggle: to have any social energy, to reach out to other people, to take care of myself when there’s work to be done, to set healthy boundaries.

But sometimes being dangerous isn’t just the affirmative idea that you can create and destroy, that you are a god in the world or even in a world of your own. I hope you can be, and I know that I have more control than my depression likes to indicate, but I don’t really feel like the god of mine most of the time. Sometimes, though, surviving is a mountain you climbed, and so is living to tell the tale, and crying and crying and crying until you’re not crying about it anymore. Until you trace those familiar lines with your fingertips and laugh.

Until you’re still here, and you’ve written all of these words down. You’re writing them. Until you realize this was it, the ritual, and your eyes well. Because you can feel this in that missing place in your chest and it aches but the pain is still something you can cast outside of yourself, a spell that makes you indestructible. So maybe, with this book to guide me home to it, I can be dangerous, too.


You have today to pre-order this amazing book I’m talking about from Fiction & Feeling. And you probably should.